Oh Please Tavis Smiley Cry Me A River

Talk show host Tavis Smiley and his sidekick Princeton Professor Cornel West are currently on their promotional “Poverty Tour” to 15 cities to raise awareness about poverty in America.

And since poverty in America started on January 21, 2009, they are making very clear who is to blame for the current living conditions of the poor and working class: President Barack Obama.

As I wrote over at TheGrio Tavis and Cornel’s criticisms of the Obama administration have merit but unfortunately these critiques are also full of personal shadiness and willful ignorance of the current political realities. Of the debt ceiling deal Tavis said,

“I don’t understand how the president could agree to a deal that does not extend unemployment benefits, does not close a single corporate loophole and doesn’t raise the taxes on the rich,” said Smiley. “The poor are being rendered more and more invisible in this country. Nobody, not the president, not the Republicans in Congress, is speaking to the truth of the suffering of everyday people.”

Let’s focus on Tavis for the moment. The problem I have with this view is that Tavis knows that no extension of unemployment benefits or tax revenues had any chance of becoming a part of this deal. Why? Because they would have been blocked by Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Could President Obama have used the so-called bully pulpit and said, “Congress must pass a debt ceiling bill that includes an extension of unemployment benefits to help poor and working families.” Yes.

Could a bill with an extension of these benefits pass the current House of Representatives? No. And the country would have defaulted because nothing would have gotten passed if the President didn’t compromise.

Tavis knows that the President only has so much power with the whole separation of powers thing so why does he continue to bash President Obama?

Turns out Tavis made the mistake of being a little too truthful in an interview on CSPAN where he made the point that President Obama has never invited him to the White House.


“Prior to his being elected, [President Obama] came on my radio programs and TV programs with regularity,” Smiley said. “Once he got elected and my critique of him — about holding him accountable to various things didn’t sit so well with him or the people around him — he has not, at this point, come on my TV or radio programs one time since he’s been in this White House.” Smiley said that Obama, whom he’s known for years, “is the first president in my professional career that hasn’t invited me to the White House.”

Previously, Tavis’ partner Professor Cornel West had expressed a similar beef when he noted the fact that he was not given a ticket to the inauguration after initially supporting President Obama during the campaign.

Tavis and Professor West need to stop the charade. A “Poverty Tour” that doesn’t register voters or educate the people attending these events on the political process and explain why more assistance for the poor is not possible with this current Congress then what’s the point? There needs to be solutions offered. It’s perfectly fine to criticize this administration constructively but when it looks like you are just mad because you were left off the guest list you aren’t in it for the poor, you are in it for yourself.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/cshap18/ Conor

    I strongly disagree with your opinion here. West and Smiley are doing more to assist the poor than the man in the White House. Obama has thrown the poor under the bus repeatedly, it’s absolutely inexcusable. One of the main reason Obama was elected was lower class blacks showed up to vote at the polls. They should be wary this coming election of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    Obama has intentionally snubbed these guys because they’re not ‘yes men’. Well, too bad. They’re telling the truth. And they have every right to point out that the President is in the wrong and is being petty by refusing to include/invite them to WH events.

    What’s most hard to believe here, is that you’re criticizing Smiley. The man who’s raising awareness about poverty. And you’re defending a President who is a supreme corporatist. Think about that for a minute.

    • http://feministing.com/members/zerlina/ zerlina

      I think you may need to google Tavis Smiley and Wells Fargo. Go do it and then try to make the argument that Tavis is in it for the poor.

      Also, lower class blacks went out to the polls to elect Obama? What is that supposed to even mean? People of all races AND classes helped elect President Obama not to mention that black people are not only lower class. That is a meme that just needs to stop right here and now.

      • http://feministing.com/members/cshap18/ Conor

        I would direct you to Emanuel’s comment below who did a much better job than I disagreeing with you.

        To say Smiley hasn’t done a lot of good work to assist the disenfranchised is just false. Google his name yourself.

        And yes, lower class black and affluent and middle class blacks (and all races and classes more broadly) all voted for him. What it’s supposed to mean (since you asked) was that the poor blacks may want to think twice before they reelect a man who is not tirelessly championing their case. Obama is helping affluent blacks. And to a lesser extent middle-class blacks. But he’s quick to ‘compromise’ on behalf of the poor ones.

        You seem to be irascible and looking to find offense, instead of actually debating or assisting people. If you’re implying my comment is racist, you’re way off base.

      • http://feministing.com/members/cshap18/ Conor

        To be completely clear – blacks still overwhelmingly support Obama’s job performance. THAT is why I singled out blacks. And I think the poor ones should reconsider…that’s all. Poor whites should too, however he DOES NOT poll as strongly with them as he does with blacks.

      • http://feministing.com/members/anthonyjk/ Anthony Kennerson

        {I accidentially hit the “Report” link when I wanted to hit “Reply”. Sorry about that…please disregard that “Report”.]

        I don’t think necessarily that Conor in referring to “lower class” Blacks was intentionally dissing them; he was refering to “lower class” as in “less economically privildged”, not “lower class” as in less classy.

        And yes, there were plenty of people who voted for President Obama, including a large diversity of races and orientations. The point being is that they voted for him because he made specific campaign promises and declared himself for specific progressive principles…which he has summarily abandoned since he took office in the name of “moving to the center”.

        Also…just because Tavis Smiley happens to have financial arrangements with Wells Fargo doesn’t mean that he can’t use those arrangements for his own goals of helping poor people out. Keith Olbermann earns up to $40 million in his capacity as Chief News Officer for Current TV, yet no one would question his credentials as a progressive journalist or his willingness to challenge even progressive spokespeople when he disagrees with them.

        And, like I said, even those arrangements don’t take away from his original critique of President Obama. Agree or disagree on the merits, but to use that is diversion.


    • http://feministing.com/members/screamerjonk/ CA Hilli

      I think it’s petty, and telling, to whine about not being invited to the White House.

      It casts doubt on Smiley’s sincerity and motives.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nefariousnewt/ Nefarious Newt

    For all the respect I have for Mr. Smiley and Mr. West, it sounds more like sour grapes than cogent theory. And I’m surprised that the two of them — both of whom should know better — choose to harp on President Obama about things he really can’t do. The “bully pulpit” is a wonderful thing if you have actual leverage when you use it, but the Republicans in the House have pretty much made it their mission to marginalize anything the President tries to do. Where is their matching ire for Speaker Boehner and his obstructionism?

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    Some people who are given a voice refuse to use it responsibly. Eventually, all they want to be is heard.

  • http://feministing.com/members/emanuelv/ EmanuelV

    I think you’re grossly mischaracterizing these men. One, to call Cornell West, Tavis Smiley’s (much less anyone’s) sidekick is really disrespectful. Especially because Tavis exhibits nothing but reverence for West as someone who has seen more things and been in the struggle longer than he has. He defers to West as someone wiser than he.

    Two, to be so reductive as to paint them as petty and attention-hungry in lieu of all the activist work they’ve done for decades because of a quote that you posted and then ignored 70% of is to me much worse of a reduction than you are accusing them of. To Tavis, Obama’s latest capitulation is just the most recent in a long line of “compromise” that has rendered him ineffective when it counts. Of course at this point in time you could make the argument that because of time-constraint and logistics it couldn’t work, but that’s not enough to go off on these two men when they’re discussing three years of a presidency.

    You took a single statement Tavis Smiley made about no longer being invited to the White House and used it to paint his entire belief system (“personal shadiness”), to me there are a lot of logical fallacies in that. And didn’t find an actual quote of Cornell West saying such a thing, just linked to an opinion article that shared the same belief as you but also didn’t have an actual quote. And I think the things Tavis said in his are pretty justifiable- to say that a president who you believe skirts issues started skirting you when you started pointing out those issues- makes sense to me and is something anyone would make note of. I don’t think Tavis or Cornell need to make up things to criticize Obama about, but you don’t have to attack their character and presume to know their intentions- because from this post it seems like to you like Tavis Smiley and Cornell West started existing in 2009.

  • http://feministing.com/members/anthonyjk/ Anthony Kennerson

    Sorry, but I beg to differ slightly on this.

    I do think that Tavis Smiley and Cornel West did get a bit too personal in their criticisms of President Obama…but their fundamental criticisms are correct and to the point. And it’s not as if defenders of the President aren’t as willing to go to the personal insult (see Steve Harvey’s “Uncle Tom” crack yesterday morning).

    Yes, Prez O is limited by separation of powers in how he handles Congress, and since January of this year he has had to deal with a GOTP opposition.

    However, before then, he had not only majority Democrats in BOTH houses of Congress, but (until Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s US Senate seat) a SUPERMAJORITY in the Senate that should have overridden attempts at obstruction by the Republicans. He had ample time and resources to promote a truly progressive program, yet he CHOSE on his own to abandon that in favor of a more “centrist”, corporate-flavored approach in policy. In fact, he has even managed to extend and expand on his own (without any help from Congress at all) many of the worst and most reactionary policies of the previous Bush Presidency…policies that HE HIMSELF campaigned against explicitly in 2008.

    Given that, the anger and outrage among many who were his most ardent supporters is more than justified, and to simply wave them off and dismiss them as merely “jealous” they weren’t invited to the White House for dinner and a movie, is simply breathtakingly ridiculous.

    Not to mention, the fact remains that even with “TeaPublican” control of the House of Representatives, President Obama still commands a strong bully pulpit that he could have put to better use to defend progressive policies. He refuses to because he is completely locked in to the very “center-right” pro-corporate, deficit hawk policies that are not quite that different from the Tea Party/Republican Right other than by degree.

    His refusal to invoke the 14th Amendment and challenge the constitutionality of the debt ceiling law; as well as his insistence on deep spending cuts to core social entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social welfare programs as part of his “Grand Bargin” of deficit reduction, all reflect the fundamentally conservative bias of his adminstration.

    Even your example of his trading the extension of the Bush tax cuts for some increased unemployment benefits in December 2010 ignores the basic fact that he could have, if he only trusted his progressive flank, held his ground on both and forced the Repubs to expose themselves as being politically extreme. He, not the Repubs, decided to use UE as a bargaining chip to get his deal with the Republicans. And, it should be noted, the ultimate deal ignored the “99’ers”, those who had been unemployed enough to have relied of UE benefits over 99 months. Why throw them under the bus and give the Repubs an almost total victory?

    I will agree that President Obama has been profusely assaulted by the Right, and with some of the nastiest, filthiest, racist overtones. Any decent minded progressive should condemn such attacks, and any worthy critic from the Left should know better than to use thinly veiled personal smears.

    But using that to undercut legitimate progressive policy criticisms of the President (and by extension, the Democratic Party) for the direction they are steering this country, is an exercise in sophistry. Regardless of whether or not your White House invitation was lost in the mail.


    • http://feministing.com/members/zerlina/ zerlina

      I think it’s a good time to point out that the supermajority that Obama had lasted for a grand total of 14 weeks. So yeah he didn’t have all this time to do all of the things you are asking him to. Separation of powers is A LOT more important a factor than Obama being a wimp or something. Obama has to work within the structure that was set up in the constitution which naturally means change will be slow. (See: http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/09/about-filibuster-proof-majority)

      • http://feministing.com/members/anthonyjk/ Anthony Kennerson


        1) 14 weeks is still a pretty long time in political terms, and when you have overwhelming majorities in both houses, you should have a direct mandate to enact the policies you promised. The issue with Prez O is that he failed to enact them, instead deciding to move directly to the Right and dismiss progressives in an attempt to placate the “center”.

        2) Even after Scott Brown was elected, Obama STILL had a solid majority of 59 Senators (57 Democrats plus Lieberman and Sanders), and his majority in the House never changed. Granted, a great number of Senators and Representatives were Blue Dog conservative Dems, but still and all, he did have enough of a sizable majority. If he had been willing to use the “bully pulpit” of his office to persuade the majority that elected him to pressure Congress into enacting progressive programs during that time, then perhaps he would have gotten a much stronger economicstimulus package, or genuine financial reform, or a stronger health care reform.

        That he didn’t do any one of those things contributed greatly to his lack of success, which both alienated his original core of base support AND enlivened the opposition of the Republicans and the Tea Party…which produced the backlash of the 2010 midterms.

        Besides that, my point is NOT that President Obama was in any way “a wimp” due to his unwillingness to directly face down the Right. My point is that the reason I and may others think that Prez O has failed is because he is NOT really a progressive and barely a liberal, that he only played one in the primaries so that he could stand out from Hillary Clinton and capture the nomination, and because all along he was set on governing from the Center-Right as a “compromiser” who would attempt to “work” with the Republicans to enact a conservative “consensus” policy..even if the people on the other side would rather topple of kill him first before they would ever deal with him. With the GOTP takeover of the House, his tendencies to the Right have only been enhanced and strengthened, and this — not any “wimpiness” or “spinelessnss” — explains his current actions…at least, in my view.

        Incidently…your link to the Kevin Drum Mother Jones article only proves that his stimulus package did marginally improve the economy, deciphering Republican critics at the time who were saying that the “stim” package was an utter failure and that that proved that “liberal big government spending” was an utter failure and that only Reagan-Bush right-wing policies would suffice. It does nothing against criticisms from the Left (see Robert Reich and Paul Krugman) that the “stim” package was much too small and tethered too much by tax cuts for the wealthy.


        • honeybee

          14 weeks is NOTHING in politics.

          Too many people on both the right AND left don’t seem to understand that you simply CANNOT implement either the hard left or the hard right policies, no matter how big your majority or what power you hold, because there are enough people out there who will protest and resist and cause you harm.

          Only policies in the “center” are really possible in our society.

          This however isn’t all a con – it’s also a pro – as for the same reason right-wingers cannot accomplish alot of the horrible policies they believe in (such as getting rid of public education) because for the exact same reasons such policies are un-implementable.

          The only way to truly get these policies through is to educate and sway the masses of people out there. Not to expect any one politician, no matter what promises they make or how many votes they get, to enact real change.

          Real change also has the price that the next conservative president will just do the same – only in the opposite direction – thus cancelling out any true progress anyways.

  • http://feministing.com/members/marginald/ Maggie

    I read the Cornell West interview I think the author is referring to (I think it was in Chris Hedges’ column on Truthdig.com, if anyone wants to read it). I do see how at first glance, West and Smiley could come across as being petty. However, I think both men deserve the benefit of the doubt, as well our respect as younger progressives. I have only heard them make these personal complaints in the context of a larger and more nuanced argument. Personally, I think this kind of anecdotal evidence is somewhat relevant. I think the point is that President Obama aligned himself with certain people and groups to get elected, but in office has not remained true to the values he claimed to share with them. The fact that he personally rejected thought leaders like West and Smiley is marginally relevant. But I think the author is truly underestimating both these men by assuming that this is the heart of their criticism of the President.
    I agree with the author, that it doesn’t benefit the public to mislead them about the extent of Obama’s ability to make the changes he promised and I see how Smiley’s comment above is somewhat misleading. But it’s not like they are criticizing Obama, because they endorse another candidate. They are working towards grassroots solutions and I think we should support them in that (and not assign the worst intentions to all their undertakings ).

  • http://feministing.com/members/critter/ Critter

    “I don’t understand how the president could agree to a deal that does not extend unemployment benefits, does not close a single corporate loophole and doesn’t raise the taxes on the rich,” said Smiley. “The poor are being rendered more and more invisible in this country. Nobody, not the president, not the Republicans in Congress, is speaking to the truth of the suffering of everyday people.”

    He’s not wrong. The poor and middle class have been absolutely hung out to dry for the past ten years. I might not agree with Smiley’s motives, but he’s absolutely right. Things need to change…the rich need to pay for the destruction they’ve wrought over the past decade.

    • honeybee

      I absolutely agree with this sentiment.

      But still completely disagree with them because Obama cannot, even if he wants to (which he clearly DOES want to), do what they say. He literally does not have the power to do so without causing more harm then good.

      Too many people seem naive about the system and what can actually be done.

      And the worst is, you have people not vote for Obama or not vote at all due to these protests, thus helping to get someone like Michelle Bachmann elected, which will by far create even worse conditions for the poor. They are preaching to the wrong person. It’s not Obama it’s republicans they need to convince.

  • willow33

    “…or educate the people attending these events on the political process and explain why more assistance for the poor is not possible with this current Congress then what’s the point?”

    The point is to raise awareness, raise consciousness on the issue of poverty to the many people who believe that nothing can be done. Yeah, maybe assistance to the poor may not be possible with this current Congress–but maybe that’s the point.

    Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. –MLK JR

  • http://feministing.com/members/shegetzguevara/ Aaron

    Oh my god, this is absurd. No supposedly “progressive” blog or website should be trashing legitimate criticisms or critics of our website. Obama has been systematically using the specter of the GOP and the Tea Party as an excuse to back out of making any serious moves at progressive legislation, and regardless of how one may feel about their personalities, Tavis and West are totally justified in making these critiques. Obama has been bending over backward to defend the banks (e.g., appointing a banking executive as his Chief of Staff) and act like he has his hands tied behind his back. “Separation of Powers” or a minority in the house is not an excuse for the kind of conciliatory approach to politics Obama and the Dems have been exercising. This post is just liberal apologizing for Obama’s conservatism. This might be the last time I read Feministing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sarahlin/ S.

    I’m a little late to the game here – but I agree with the author. I’ve consistently been unimpressed when I catch Tavis Smiley and Cornell West on their radio program, but that’s besides the point.

    I should also note that I’m exceptionally disappointed with Obama on many issues – his refusal to criticize Israel being front and center.

    But when it comes to the economy, Obama may not be on top of things tactically (understatement)- but I do think he’s taking the approach that he believes will help the economy as a whole recover quicker. Pulling the economy out of recession (if it can be achieved in a reasonable timeframe) will do more to help the poor in this country than any targeted extension of unemployment benefits (not the solution IMO).